Li-Young Lee

Winner of the William Carlos Williams Award in 2002

The Hammock



When I lay my head in my mother's lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside my mother's singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and the kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.

I don't know what my mother's thinking.

When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder:
Do his father's kisses keep his father's worries
from becoming his? I think, Dear God, and remember
there are stars we haven't heard from yet:
They have so far to arrive. Amen,
I think, and I feel almost comforted.

I've no idea what my child is thinking.

Between two unknowns, I live my life.
Between my mother's hopes, older than I am
by coming before me, and my child's wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what's it like?
Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.
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Carolyn Forche on Li-Young Lee

When Li-Young Lee's name is mentioned, somebody usually says, "I love him!" or "I love his work." We admire, revere, respect many poets, but rarely, I believe, do we say, spontaneously, "I love him!" A poet has to be full of love himself to elicit this response from his readers. Since his first book, his open affection for his mother, his father, his dead brother, expressed with his disciplined lyricism, has been palpable. In this new book, this is still apparent, intertwined with his themes of night and sleep and sleeplessness— and as this would indicate, death and memory:


...you can't sleep except by forgetting,
you can't love except by remembering...
I can hear by what you say
your first words must have been mother and father.
Even before your own name, mother.
Long before amen, father..."


In my favorite poem in this volume, because I love poems that ask questions, and these have a kind of Roethkean cadence, "Hurry Toward Beginning," Lee writes:


I can't tell what my father said about the sea
we crossed together
from the sea itself,

or the rose's noon from my mother
crying on the stairs, lost
between a country and a country.
Everywhere is home to the rain.
The hours themselves, where do they hide?
The fruit of listening, what's that...?


It's hard to stop quoting, and easy to praise. To sum up, let me just say that I love him; I love his work.

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